Originally published November 1 on In Bed With Maradona.Online.
“Dom Matteo scored a f***ing great goal, in the San Siro” – Leeds United supporters cling onto the words of the chant like a favourite childhood memory. Since the heady days of Champions League semi-finals and Premier League title challenges, Leeds have slid down the football pyramid as if it were a game of snakes and ladders. Snakes and ladders is a game of luck, of course, but there has been something calculated about the way various ghoulish characters have stripped Leeds United bare and left them on a perpetual financial knife-edge – but with every relegation the fans have sung the San Siro song louder. From the San Siro to Scunthorpe, Leeds were the giants that were felled by greed and blind ambition. However, a glorious Milanese night in the year 2000 remains untainted.
Leeds went to Milan needing a draw to ensure qualification from a group that also included a Rivaldo inspired Barcelona and a dangerous Besiktas outfit. Perhaps the fleeting alchemy of manager David O’Leary’s tenure was that he was able to let his young players play unshackled and completely free of burden. For the likes of Harry Kewell, Lee Bower, and Alan Smith – this brief period from ’98-’00 is the first line of their footballing epitaphs, with none ever coming close to the performances they put on for Leeds when at other clubs.
After being torn apart 0-4 in the group opener at the Camp Nou they regrouped, sticking 6 past Besitkas at home before beating Milan at Elland Road 1-0 due to howler from their reliably erratic goalkeeper Dida. A point at home against Barcelona was still not enough to put Leeds through to the second round of group stages (remember them?).
The San Siro was historically a difficult place for British teams to visit; Milan had not been beaten there by a British side in ten games. Similarly in six visits Leeds United had never won in Italy. The odds were stacked in Milan’s favour. The team sheet of the Rossoneri that day rolls off the tongue – Andriy Shevchenko, Paulo Maldini, Demetrio Albertini. Names that will always hold a certain romance for fans that grew up watching the Serie on Channel 4 in the U.K, whilst whiling away Sunday afternoons on Championship Manager.
Stadia like the San Siro were a myth to many Leeds fans too young to have experienced the previous glory days of European adventures of the 1960s and ’70s. As champions of England they played a bit part in the 1992 inaugural Champions League, which yielded a miserable trip to Stuttgart before being dumped out in the second round by Glasgow Rangers in a much hyped but ultimately one-sided Battle of Britain. This time, the team and the fans were determined to squeeze every last drop of experience out of the campaign. I spoke to fans that were at the game as well as the hero of the hour, Dom Matteo.
The Milanese authorities were clearly aware of the dark myth of Leeds fans – and a ban on booze was enforced citywide. Ian from Huddersfield travelled over on his own, and remembers finding an establishment that was happy to turn a blind eye to the ban.
“I happily stayed in there for a couple of hours before the police shut it down”.
This ensured a game of cat and mouse between police and fans continued around the city.
“We rambled around Milan in vain in search of a friendly hostelry, eventually stumbling across a restaurant, which appeared to be closed, and after a knock on the door I was quickly ushered in”
Reassuringly he was greeted by around 20 fellow Leeds fans, where they stayed for a further 3 hours before the game
“I was the last to leave as the restaurant owner gave us shots as we toasted the downfall of A.C. Milan, he was an Inter fan”.
Eventual winners of the trophy in 2000/2001, Bayern Munich collect Champions League semi-final and final appearances like the toys you get in a Happy Meal. I’m sure their fans can remember beating Valencia in the final, but was it Real Madrid or Manchester United in the quarters? Do they care? For Leeds United the competition that year was the peak, the zenith of Chairman Peter Ridsdale’s infamous ‘living the dream’ manifesto. O’Leary’s young thoroughbreds were delivering a shock and awe campaign across Europe’s elite, only Raul scored more goals than Lee Bowyer in that year’s competition.
For Stu, the trip to Milan is the most golden memory of a support that has delivered more heartache than glory.
“I was 11 years old and skipped school to go with my dad. I couldn’t believe all the Leeds fans in the main square. My Dad to me that you may never hear the Champions League music again”, a statement that becomes darkly premonitious in hindsight. Leeds flooded the city centre, and sprawled outwards in search of the elusive pre game beer (or Grappa).
The game itself was a dead rubber for Milan; they had already qualified for the next stage, so it was down to Leeds to create the tension as they chased the point that would qualify them. Barcelona were praying for a Milan win as their fate would be determined by the result at the San Siro, and they faced Besiktas at the Camp Nou.
The San Siro is ominously tall in stature. At 80,000 it capacity is twice as large as Leeds United’s home, Elland Road – itself, one of the largest grounds in the English leagues at the time. But as Matteo tells me, the sheer volume of Leeds fans set the scene and ensured a familiarly rocking ambience.
“The atmosphere was actually very British as there were about 10,000 Leeds fans behind the goal.”
“Stepping out at the San Siro was so special; it’s one of the most iconic stadiums in the world. With the Italian connections in my family made it extra special for me.”
It was a rearguard action from Leeds in the first half with Milan’s Brazilian winger Serginho posing a relentless threat down the left. O’Leary had admitted before the game that it would be suicide to soak up Milan pressure – but they seemed powerless to stop wave after wave of penetration.
After Gary Kelly handled the ball in the box, a penalty was given and up stepped Andriy Shevchenko. He was at the peak of his powers in 2000 – a Rolls Royce of a striker, and sniper of a finisher – scoring from 12 yards was a foregone conclusion. To Leeds fan Dave from Ossett, the penalty was to be the turning point in the match, and the moment where belief was born.
“The game was a bit unreal. I never expected anything from it but when Shevchenko missed the penalty I started to wonder”
The moment was huge, and Stu witnessed how the sheer elation of the miss threatened to fill up hospital beds in the city.
“Shevchenko missed the penalty and an older guy below me got taken out on a stretcher due to the celebrations”
On top of the official allocation there was estimated to be around 4 thousand Leeds fans dotted around the stadium. Howard and his friend Neil had proudly infiltrated the home faithful.
“I’d managed to arrange a ‘business trip’ to coincide with this fixture, and friends in Milan got me and Neil tickets for it so we were in with the locals. We both were wearing Leeds scarves”
With half time was approaching, and Milan deflated after the penalty miss, he sensed that the wind needed to quickly blow in Leeds’ favour.
“I turned to Neil and said ‘now would be a good time to score’, and lo and behold up popped Dom”
There isn’t a sweeter football cliché than the line about there being no better time to score a goal than on the stroke of half time. The goal itself was one seen on football pitches around the U.K. every weekend. Midfielder Dominic Matteo rose from a Lee Bowyer corner, finding the sweet spot to head past a helpless Dida.
With Leeds only needing a point to qualify, this sent the travelling support into delirium, and Matteo into club folklore.
Following the goal, bottles rained down on the Leeds fans from above. Bizarrely this proved to be not the only threat from the Milan fans sitting in the higher tier. Nick remembers them attempting to throw a Vespa scooter onto the Leeds fans below, only to be thwarted by the stewards.
“Quite scary” remembers Nick, “but my main concern at the time was ‘how the f*ck did they get that up there in the first place?’”
In the second half, Serginho continued to dazzle, and he danced past the Leeds defence to make it 1-1 with a brilliant solo goal.
“I remember the deafening roar they made when they equalised; it made the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end” recalls Vinnie.
But Leeds managed to hang on, securing their spot in the next round whilst simultaneously putting a full stop to Barcelona’s Champions League campaign that year.
The Leeds supporters had been kept in the ground by police after the game, and several of the players joined the fans in the away end for songs and revelry. Right-back Gary Kelly was the conductor as the fans sang victory songs. BBC Five live commentator Alan Green called it the greatest example of player and fan bonding he’d ever seen as Leeds cheque-writer Peter Ridsdale joined in. Just a few years later he would be persona non grata at Elland Road, but for tonight – he was a legend somewhere other than in his own mind.
The celebrations that began with Shevchenko’s penalty miss, probably never stopped until the fans landed back on British soil. For Matteo and the players, they had achieved what they had set out for.
“After the game back to the hotel to celebrate with a proper sing-song on the coach.
Then the songs continued long into the night at the hotel with a few beers and a couple of bottles of red as we were in Italy (rude not too)”
For the travelling support, Ian explains that the whole experience was completely exhausting.
“My mate who is a Baggies fan and had come with us, he was overcome with emotion at the end of the game. He was physically knackered. I don’t think he has experienced an atmosphere at a game either before or since”
Leeds United would go on to reach the semi-finals of the competition that year, before being beaten by Valencia. For 11 year old Stu bunking off school to travel over for the game, it was simply “the best day of mine and my dad’s life”.
Clubs like A.C Milan and stadia like the San Siro are built to last – they are grand old institutions – and for a while Leeds sat at that table and felt immortal. Neil from Wortley proudly recalls how the celebrations at the end left him with “The feeling that we were invincible”.
The result felt like a milestone. They had planted their flag on the moon, and were here to stay. It didn’t work out that way of course and for Matteo, the fantastic memories of the period also invokes feelings of what might have been.
“That team had great players, the attitude was top draw we believed we could beat anyone. Also the team spirit was amazing on and off the field. I was so gutted that team never got longer together as a group as I feel still to this day we could have achieved something”.
Matteo, who has settled in Yorkshire, gladly embraces his place in the club’s history. “I’m reminded about that goal nearly every time I meet any Leeds fan which is a lovely feeling”
For Oranjewhite of the WACCOE supporter’s forum, the unique popularity of the chant serves as a stark reminder of the club’s perilous recent history. The pathos of the words humbles them.
“As a chant I think it’s the most fitting from that era to be sung today. It’s got a descending melody which makes it feel a lot more sombre and full of regret than your average chant. It perfectly captures a momentary high and how we’ve fallen. Doubt we’d still be singing it if we hadn’t been through the last decade of horrors”
“It’s catchy and recites one of the few highlights of the club’s recent history. It actually makes me sad” adds Neil.
To fans of other clubs, the Leeds United story of the late ’90s and early ’00s and their subsequent fall from grace is now not much more than a case study in how not to create success. The rug was shortly ripped out from under them without the ever winning a trophy, the financial situation at the club was so perilous that on more than one occasion their very existence was put into doubt.
In football, evictions are never permanent – but it remains to be seen when the supporters will get the opportunity to update to the words to the Matteo/San Siro chant. Until then, the fans will of course keep on singing it.
Dominic Matteo is available after dinner speaking and personal appearances. He can be contacted at www.soccerspeaker.co.uk